Re-framing and Re-containing
Can We Really Ensure Safety in the Rehearsal Studio or Classroom?
I have been thinking about how we, as practitioners, almost compulsively talk about “safety” in our work, particularly in the studio or classroom, as though it is embedded in what we do. Safety is ubiquitous in our vernacular; we ensure it almost by reflex. What is safety, though? What are we really trying to get at when we talk about “safety?” Can we actually ensure it? Isn’t education and art-making intended to be risky? If we are taking risks and growing, can we ever be truly safe?
I began thinking about this with the kerfuffle last spring about the idea of using “trigger warnings” in classrooms and the question of when protecting students in advance of challenging material goes too far. As a self-proclaimed Social Justice Warrior, as a queer woman (thus, a member of intersectionally marginalized groups), and as someone who has experienced sexual violence, I appreciate the idea of a “trigger-warning.” When I’ve been “trigger-warned,” however, I usually sally forth and click on the link (or whatever I have been warned against) and wade into the difficult material (though I rarely read the comments—I’m not that brave!). Sitting inside complexity and difficult conversations has helped me become more resilient. It has helped me to become a better self-advocate. Yes, sometimes I collapse under the pain of history or previous experience. But rarely. And I can always pull myself back to the present.
I propose that perhaps “safe space” is a misnomer when, in fact, we are talking about a “supportive environment.”
Last month, I attended the Mid-America Theatre Conference (MATC) in Kansas City, Missouri. Attending a handful of the panels on theatre pedagogy, the topic of “safety” came up multiple times and I found myself bristling at the word. Perhaps this was because, as one panel participant suggested, education is inherently unsafe, fundamentally designed to challenge one’s sense of boundaries (This may have been Dr. Martine Kei Green-Rogers—correct me if I’m wrong). Or perhaps my reaction occurred because over the past year or more, I have done more and more theatrical work in prisons, in which safety is, at best, a mirage. While I have felt “safe” facilitating work in this context, as have the participants, at any moment, something—a shakedown, lockdown, pat down—could occur that would upset this (naïve? utopic?) idea of safety. And the idea of a “safe space” also seems misidentified since the notion of space is complicated by the architecture designed to punish, contain, and separate (this came from a post-panel conversation with Karen Jean Martinson). I suppose the pepper spray I was required to wear on my belt and the radio I was instructed to carry should have heightened the lack of safety, but instead I was caught up in rehearsals in the perception of safety. By that, I realize now, I mean the temporary, communal imaginary: the opening up of possibilities previously unimaginable; a perceived quality that we could travel, individually or collectively, to emotionally dark and painful places and come out the other side with our sense of self, and our sense of community, still intact.
I propose that perhaps “safe space” is a misnomer when, in fact, we are talking about a “supportive environment.” Since I began directing several years ago, I often take a little time at the beginning of the rehearsal process to establish “group agreements.” This practice has transferred to my work in college classrooms and in prisons. Upon reviewing these lists from the past few years, I’ve compiled the most common agreements in order to get at what we mean by “safety.” This list is far from exhaustive and I urge you to add your own agreements in the comments below (and I promise I will be brave enough to read the comments, in this case):
- What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Essentially, that the group must maintain some level of confidentiality outside the container of the rehearsal studio or classroom. The nuance of confidentiality differs between groups.
- Don’t assume. Give one another the benefit of the doubt.
- Listen. Actively and sincerely.
- Share. Generously and without attachment.
- No shame/no blame. We can deal with conflict openly and directly as a group. We can make space for handling harm, should it occur, but we cannot and will not promise that you won’t be hurt or challenged.
- Practice pluralism. Recognize that our group may include a diversity of opinions, ideas, backgrounds, experiences, aesthetics, and social identities. This is cause for celebration. We can preemptively identify the things we may feel touchy about so as not to offend. Also, see #2.
- Practice active and explicit consent. Recognize that some activities within rehearsals are risky (physically and/or emotionally) and encourage ensemble members to be risk-aware, choosing whether or not to engage.
- Self-care. Okay. This is not usually on the lists, but I think it should be. As facilitators, we can model and encourage self-care. This provides extra protection from harm and increases resilience. It prevents burning out and other masochistic tendencies endemic in our discipline.
- Have fun. Self-explanatory. And essential.
In a mutually supportive environment, we develop a temporary community in which folks maintain increased mindfulness of their colleagues, take responsibility for their language and behavior, and seek to resolve conflict and injury in a respectful manner. Maintaining comfort has never shown up on any of these lists, which implies that ensembles implicitly recognize that comfort cannot be guaranteed, nor should it be desired. Play or fun shows up on almost every list. And that, my friends, is the name of the game, even—and maybe especially—when dealing with difficult subject matter. Play is enabled when supports are in place. Safety not required.
In the past, I have been guilty of perpetuating this cult of safety. I have been the Queen of Safety, in fact, proclaiming, promising, and promulgating that which I had not heretofore examined. But no longer. From now on, I call upon myself to practice a meta-mindfulness; choosing my language carefully when speaking about the sensitive creative work that happens in rehearsal and educational processes.